Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Political Identity and Race Consciousness

BOND: You also seem to me to be very straightforward about who you are, and I was reading something you said to the L.A. Times in March of '97. You said, "I'm a liberal, big-spending, Democratic, female African American. Take me or leave me. That's who I am." I mean, that's not a description everyone politician would give of themselves, even if it was true.

WATSON: If I had all the money in the world, I'd spend it on everybody in the world. That's just who I am.

BOND: Yeah.

WATSON: And I think people's needs ought to be met and if they can't meet them personally, then government has to fill in. I'm the safety net person.

BOND: Nice segue to the next question. How does race consciousness affect your work? Are you a leader who advances issues of race or issues of society or both? And is there a distinction between them?

WATSON: I -- yes, there is. But I advance issues, period, and then I try to protect and speak for the underdog, be they black, brown, Asian or whatever. And I see very clearly because I'm an African American, and by the way, the reason why we have the designation on the Census form of African American is because when I chaired the Caucus in California and I chaired it for eight years, I called in the people from the Census Bureau and I said, "Look," I said, "We have a problem because we are black people in America. I was born as colored. I grew up as Negro and I chose to be called an African American, because if you're Chinese, everyone knows that you have your gene pool in China. If you're Japanese, everyone knows that your gene pool is in Japan. If you're Mexican, in Mexico. But if you're black, dah." So I said, "Why can't we identify with our gene pool? We originated off the continent of Africa," and that's how it came about. So I've always had a great deal of pride, ethnic pride, and so I can go out there as a black person, as a woman, you know, and work on behalf of other people like me and all the people that I represent. I have no fear in doing that and I come from a very strong matriarchal background because our women had to be. You know, the men weren't around and you had to go out, you had to work, and we're workers. Nobody in my family was on welfare. My mother worked at the post office, by the way, during the war.

BOND: At night?

WATSON: At night. She got time and a half. She'd work holidays and we lived well. My mother, she bought property and we enhanced that property and all, but we worked hard and I still work hard and I'd rather work than lounge around. That's just who I am.